Authors: Brynn Bonner
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To Eleanor Harris Bonner, beloved and missed
To my cohorts of the Weymouth 7: Margaret Maron, Sarah Shaber, Diane Chamberlain, Kathy Trocheck (aka Mary Kay Andrews), Katy Munger, and Alex Sokoloff, who provide brainstorming, camaraderie, encouragement, and some of the most ridiculous Balderdash definitions ever put forth.
To members of the Cary Writers' Group, for their input, especially Jo Ann Hoffman, beta reader extraordinaire.
To my agent, Cynthia Manson, and to Gallery editor Micki Nuding.
To my family, for their unwavering support.
And to all the past amateur genealogists in our family lines, thanks for marking the trail.
This was no way for a full-grown professional woman to present herself. I moved the gift bow someone had stuck on my forehead over to my temple, where I hoped it might make me look like an exotic island woman wearing a flower behind one ear. I sighed as I caught sight of myself in the mirror. It was a wasted hope.
“My mother used to tell me I was the greatest gift she ever got,” I groused, “but even she didn't expect me to come gift-wrapped.”
“Sophreena Angelica McClure, you need to get over yourself,” my business partner and second mama, Esme Sabatier, scolded, adjusting the ribbon that ran across her ample chest like a beauty contestant's sash. “I am all about my dignity but you don't hear me complaining, do you? Anyway, we're not the gift; it's our genealogical services these wonderful friends are giving Olivia. This is just the presentation. Get into the spirit of the thing, girly.”
Easy for Esme to say. She's a statuesque woman-of-a-certain-age with exotic features and a warm latte complexion. I'm shorter than Esmeâmuch shorter. And small. My narrow body doesn't allow for frills. So while Esme looked festive, I looked like an exhausted child who'd confused her directions at the Maypole dance and gotten hopelessly entangled in the streamers.
“Esme's right, Sophreena,” Marydale Thompson said, fluffing the multiple ribbons festooning my upper torso. “I know this is silly, but just go along with it, please? Olivia's wanted to trace her family history for as long as I've known her, and do
ask me how many long years that's been. She and your mother and me were friends since all you kids were little bitty things. Let's make this a special surprise for her, okay?”
I made an attitude adjustment and stretched a smile across my face.
Marydale Thompson had promised my dying mother she'd look after me, a vow she took seriously. She continues to hover over me even now that I'm in my thirties. And I'm grateful, most of the time anyway. Marydale's a person you want in your corner. When Olivia Clement had been diagnosed with breast cancer it was Marydale who organized a brigade to bring meals, drive her to treatments, and perform other acts of kindness. Now that the treatments were over and Olivia was on the road to recovery, her friends wanted to give her one more giftâme and Esme. Or our expertise, anyway.
Not to brag, but Esme and I run a primo genealogical service. We ferret out information other researchers could never unearth. Every once in a while we disinter long-buried
family secrets in the process. Which can be a sticky wicket sometimes, especially since Esme and I have our own secret.
We're successful, in part, because we sometimes get help from the great beyond. Esme has the gift, or
it's the gift; maybe it's just heightened intuition. Could simply be Esme's own subconscious leaking through. Who knows? Even Esme isn't sure. But whatever you call it, it is maddeningly sporadic and the signs and messages she gets are often incomprehensible. Still, there are those stunning occasions when something spot-on comes through and we reveal a story no hours of poring over records in a dusty archive could ever have uncovered.
We guard this secret closely. In the genealogy world, where documentation and hard evidence are highly valued, this kind of folderolâgetting information straight from the dead horse's mouthâis heresy. We'd be drummed out of the corps. Only our four closest friendsâthe four others in our genealogy clubâknow about Esme's special faculty. Marydale is one of those chosen few.
And so is Colette “Coco” Newsome, who at that moment opened the door from Olivia's living room a crack and stage-whispered, “Are y'all about ready? What's taking so long?”
Coco was dressed in her signature style: a long, gauzy skirt, a riotously colored tunic, and lots of jangling jewelry. Suddenly my ribbons and bows seemed positively staid.
“We're all set,” Marydale said. “Are Beth and Daniel in there with Olivia?”
Coco snaked her hand through the doorway and beckoned impatiently. “Yes, yes, we're all hereâwaiting and waiting. Come on!”
Olivia was on the sofa with her two adult children. She looked expectant and more than a little perplexed at the sight of Esme and me in our strange accoutrement. Marydale made the presentation speech, then Esme and I were on.
I curtsied and Esme rolled her hand and bowed like a magician about to perform a trick.
“On behalf of all your friends,” Marydale said, handing Olivia a card, “we give you the services of the best genealogists in the stateâor perhaps the whole countryâMs. Sophreena McClure and her able assistant, Ms. Esme Sabatier. They're going to help you trace your family history and all of us in the club will pitch in, too.”
Olivia's face lit up. Even her hair, which post-chemo had come back curly and white as lamb's wool, seemed to be illuminated.
“Isn't this great, Mom?” Beth asked. “You've wanted to do this for years.”
“And it gets me off the hook,” Daniel said. “I've done some fumbling around on the Internet but I had no idea what I was doing and figuring out who's who and how they're all kin makes my eyeballs do that cartoon thing where they circle in opposite directions.”
“Not so fast, Daniel,” Olivia said, patting him on the leg. “This will be a family project. I'll use it as a handy excuse to spend more time with you and Beth.”
Anyone acquainted with this family would know that was no hardship. Beth and Daniel adored their mother and had been devoted to her throughout her health crisis. Beth had taken an extended leave of absence from her job as assistant principal at Morningside High School to be with her mother
throughout her treatments. And Daniel, who was an attorney in nearby Chapel Hill, popped over daily to help out.
I'd known Beth and Daniel most of my life. They were older than I and we weren't close, but were friends the way the children of parents' friends often are. Like cousins, I'm told, though I have little personal experience with that relationship since my parents were both only children.
I'd idolized Beth when we were growing up. She was a class act. Beautiful in a refined way and, on top of that, super-smart and good at everything she tried. In high school she'd been that rare breed, a popular girl who was well regarded across the spectrum, not just with the in-crowd. The jocks, outsiders, Goths, and nerds all had liked her, too.
And Daniel? Be still my heart. The boy every girl had a crush on but didn't dare bring home to meet the parents. He had an edge, though he hadn't earned one. Not that I knew of anyway, but he had an air of imminent danger about him, veneered over, just barely, with an easygoing charm.
Olivia scooted to the edge of the sofa. “I'm going to get all blubbery. Tell me what I need to do to get started before I disgrace myself.”
“First thing is to find out what you know,” I said. “So that's what we'll do today. And Esme and I will want to go through all your family memorabilia to see what information we can glean.”
“Oh dear,” Olivia said. “I don't have much here. There are boxes of stuff in my uncle and aunt's old house out in Crawford. They were the last of the generation. They left everything to me. But Aunt Celestine passed on just before I was diagnosed and I haven't had a chance to go out there and sort through everything.”
“Surprise again,” Daniel said, walking over to pull away the bedsheet that had concealed boxes stacked behind the sofa. “Beth and I drove out to Aunt Celestine's house last week and gathered up everything we thought might be useful.” He tapped the top of a disintegrating cardboard box, which was so the opposite of archival it made me cringe. “Oh, and by the way, I brought back Uncle Riley's gun collection, too. I figured they didn't need to be out there in that empty house. But not to worry, I know how you feel about guns. They're locked up out in your studio.”
“And you'll never guess what else,” Beth said. “Daniel contacted the pastor at the church that sponsored your missionary grandparents and asked if they had any information about them andÂ .Â .Â .” She gestured toward Daniel to pick up the story.
“And the pastor's wife was pretty psyched to hear from me. Seems the old reverend's wife had been saving some boxes of your grandparents' things for years and she'd made the new wife promise not to throw them out in case someone came looking for them someday.” He swept a hand to encompass more boxes in equally alarming condition. “And we did! And here they are!”
Marydale rose and said, “Good, then. I'll leave y'all to it. I need to get back to the shop.” She snapped her fingers and her two Westies, Sprocket and Gadget, scampered over to get their leashes clipped on.
“I gotta go, too,” Coco said. “Pottery's not gonna fire itself. Call us, Sophreena, and give us our assignments. You know the ancient-history club is on standby.”
I smiled and nodded. Winston's shrew of an ex-wife, Patsy, had given us that sobriquet when Winston had gone
digging into an area of his family history that she'd just as soon he'd kept hidden. Contrarians that we all are, we adopted it as a badge of honor. I'd already worked up a plan, dividing the family lines so we could get Olivia a good start on the project, and after I talked with Olivia I'd tweak the lists and drop by Marydale's shop to deliver hers and Coco's.
Marydale's papercraft shop, Keepsake Corner, is located right in the heart of downtown Morningside, about a mile from Olivia's house. It's my happy place. I go there often to get my fix of artisan papers and heritage scrapbooking supplies. It's right next door to the Morningside Craft Co-op, where Coco sells her pottery wares. Marydale and Coco had opted to walk over on this glorious North Carolina fall day. I was envious.
Esme and I shed our gift-wrapping and pulled up chairs to begin our initial interview. Normally at this point in the process Esme would have begged off, claiming pressing business elsewhere. She doesn't much care for the one-on-one with clients, but Olivia was an exception. She and Esme belonged to the same church and Olivia had been among the first to make Esme feel welcome when she'd moved here six years ago to join me in my genealogy services business.
Not that I'd been looking to take on a partner. I was just starting out and didn't have enough clients to support my own self. I met Esme down in Louisiana on my first big job, and though I found her a little scary in the beginning, I came to like her. A few months after the job was over she contacted me and told me we were to be partners in the business. She announced it as a fait accompli, and though I'm normally a cautious and analytical person, I agreed
immediately. I still haven't figured out why I did that, but I've learned over the years that getting messages from the great beyond isn't Esme's only gift. She can also hoodoo people into agreeing to things before they even know what's happening. Especially me.